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August Assault Edition
TWILIGHT ZONE Season 5 on Blu-Ray
Plus: Stallone, Lebowski, PRIEST, Criterions & More!

Image's "Definitive" TWILIGHT ZONE box-sets rank as some of my favorite releases of the last few years – both DVD and now Blu-Ray – and Image this month finishes up their high-definition retrospective of the series with the 5th season – the last 36 episodes – from Rod Serling's classic anthology series.

After a fourth season that found the series expanded to an hour length with mixed results, CBS and the show's producers cut "The Twilight Zone" back to its original half-hour format. The results were nowhere near as groundbreaking or unforgettable as some of the series' seminal moments from its first few years, yet there are a handful of gems sprinkled throughout the fifth and final year for the Zone (1963-64).

Serling's "In Praise Of Pip" opens the fifth season with one of its finest half-hours, starring Jack Klugman as a distraught father haunted by the loss of his son in Vietnam, and Billy Mumy as the apparition who appears to offer him another chance. Also among the fifth season shows are a handful of Serling-penned episodes including "Uncle Simon" (directed by Don Siegel), "A Kind of Stopwatch," "The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms" (starring James Coburn), "A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain," "The Mask," "Sounds and Silences" (directed by Richard Donner), "The Last Night of a Jockey" (with Mickey Rooney), "The Fear," "The Brain Center at Whipple's," "The Long Morrow," "I Am The Night -- Color Me Black," "Probe 7 -- Over and Out," "The Jeopardy Room," "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," and "The Old Man In The Cave"; another Siegel episode, "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross"; Earl Hamner, Jr.'s "Stopover In a Quiet Town," "Ring-a-Ding Girl," "You Drive," "Black Leather Jackets," and "The Bewitchin' Pool" (with Mary Badham, though most of her voiced was dubbed by June Foray); the Bernard Herrmann-scored "Living Doll," starring Telly Savalas, and "Ninety Years Without Slumbering," also scored by the great composer; the Jackie Cooper episode "Caesar and Me" (the only original Zone to be directed by a woman, in this case Adele T. Strassfield); Richard Matheson's "Spur of the Moment," "Steel" (with Lee Marvin), "Night Call" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", the latter also helmed by Richard Donner, as well a pair of other Donner episodes, "From Agnes -- With Love" and "Come Wander With Me"; the Martin M. Goldsmith stories "What's In The Box?" and "The Encounter" (a pretentious but nevertheless intriguing tale co-starring George Takei); John Tomerlin's "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You"; Jerry Sohl's "Queen of the Nile"; and lastly, French filmmaker Robert Enrico's "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge," a Cannes winner that Serling imported as one of the series' final episodes.

Though many fifth season shows lack the freshness and energy of the early Zone episodes, the positives outweigh the stories that, at their worst, are completely disposable. Donner's "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" is not just one of the best Season 5 episodes but one of the finest from the series' entire run; tensely directed, perfectly scripted by Richard Matheson and with a superb performance from William Shatner (whose nervous tension is palpable, ranking this role with his finest work), the episode was later adapted in George Miller’s "Twilight Zone: The Movie" remake starring John Lithgow in 1983. "Living Doll" is likewise a perfectly-pitched piece with a creepy Bernard Herrmann score, while "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You" offers a intriguing variation on a theme Serling originally explored in the seminal "Eye of the Beholder." "Steel" and "Spur of the Moment," meanwhile, are interesting tales also spun by the prolific Richard Matheson.

Of course, while there are a few clunkers here (Serling acknowledged how burned out he was by the end), Twilight Zone fans will nevertheless want to add this beautifully produced collection to their libraries. As with their previous box sets, Image has included fantastic, new digitally remastered HD transfers superior to their already-superb DVD counterparts, with strong monophonic soundtracks complimenting the audio end (the “remastered” tracks are also included, though truth be told there’s little difference between them). Several isolated score tracks are again present, though with the majority of episodes comprised of stock music, that feature is less frequent this time out (in addition to the two Herrmann scores, there are also two contributions from Rene Garriguenc, four scores by Van Cleave, and one each from Lucien Moraweck, Jeff Alexander and Tommy Morgan, respectively, among the fifth season soundtracks. In all, 20 of the 36 episode scores are isolated here, up from 10 on the prior DVD edition).

Episodes from the Twilight Zone radio series are once again on-hand, as are a number of commentary tracks (including Mickey Rooney, June Foray, Bill Mumy, Martin Landau, Mariette Hartley and others) – 20 of them brand new – and video interviews, with Richard Matheson and Earl Hamner, Jr. among them. More excerpts from Serling's Sherwood Oaks Experimental College lectures are included, along with home movies from frequent Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson, an Alfred Hitchcock promo, Serling’s Netherlands sales pitch, a 1959 Mike Wallace interview and plenty more. Unquestionably recommended!

A Stallone Quartet

Four Sylvester Stallone catalog titles hit Blu-Ray this month from Warner, each retailing for about $15 and under in most locales.

The first of a two-picture deal with the Cannon Group, Stallone’s Summer of ‘86 box-office underachiever COBRA (**, 87 mins., R) leads things off – and it’s a movie whose main pleasures seem to now be in its nostalgic, product-placement aspects (the Toys ‘R Us Christmas commercial that runs in full when Cobra turns on his apartment TV; a wealth of now-defunct brands in the supermarket during the opening shoot-out, including Slice and Pepsi Free).

The film itself, borne out of Stallone’s desire to produce a cop-thriller after he fell out of “Beverly Hills Cop,” is a pedestrian hack-job from “Rambo II” helmer George P. Cosmatos. Sly plays a gruff L.A. cop who doesn’t play by the rules as he wipes out the scum of the earth – or, more precisely, a psychotic cult we see a few times standing around fires, clanging axes together for no apparent reason other than it looks like an MTV video. Sly’s then-squeeze, Brigitte Nielsen, thankfully doesn’t have to extend her acting range very far as a model who witnesses one of the gang’s killings, leading to her being placed in Stallone’s care as the bad guys come after her over and over again.

It had been a few years since I had last watched “Cobra,” and the one thing I took from Warner’s Blu-Ray is that the film has not aged well. Stallone’s script, adapted from the novel “Fair Game” by Paula Gosling (which would later be adapted again by Joel Silver in his one attempt at launching Cindy Crawford’s acting career), offers little in the way of character development or humor outside of a few digs between Cobra and his partner (Reni Santoni). This is nearly wall-to-wall action (perhaps a reason for the movie’s remarkably strong international box-office receipts), and none of it is especially well-handled by Cosmatos: an endless sequence where Nielsen is stalked by the gang’s big bad, the “Night Slasher” (Brian Thompson), plays like an inferior version of “Halloween II,” and most of the chase sequences are helmed in similarly claustrophobic close-ups without any kind of scale (one guesses that Stallone’s paycheck took up most of the film’s budget).

Warner’s Blu-Ray is the least satisfying of this Stallone Blu-Ray batch: the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is fine, but the source materials show their age. The DTS MA sound is pretty robust for a picture recorded in “Eagle Stereo” (presumably another corner cut by Golan-Globus), while extras carried over from the ancient DVD offer Cosmatos’ commentary, an eight-minute EPK featurette and the amusing trailer.

One interesting thing about going through Stallone’s filmography is how the bright spots in Sly’s career seem to come in waves – his recent resurrection courtesy of “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo” and “The Expendables” was most closely echoed in the mid ‘90s starting with “Cliffhanger” and a trio of titles that comprise the rest of Warner’s BD batch.

DEMOLITION MAN (***½, 115 mins., 1993, R) followed “Cliffhanger” in the fall of ‘93 and offers one of Stallone’s most appealing vehicles: a futuristic action piece with a number of offbeat, humorous touches and a terrific supporting cast.

Stallone plays John Spartan, a tough cop pursuing master criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) in a semi-futuristic 1990s L.A. When Phoenix is sentenced to a deep sleep in a CryoPrison, Spartan is unjustly accused and joins him – but is awakened in 2032 after Phoenix gets out and wrecks havoc on a truly futuristic world where the cops aren’t used to fighting and violence is a relic of another era. Spartan is resurrected by a defanged L.A. police force and is assigned to a pair of young cops (Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt) to track Phoenix down, forming the central premise of Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov’s original script – one that was reworked by “Heathers”’ Daniel Waters for Marco Brambilla’s finished film.

“Demolition Man” has all the trappings of a slick ‘90s Joel Silver production, but it’s the humor and engaging performances that give the picture some enduring appeal: unlike most futuristic sci-fi movies where life is often portrayed in dreary, post-apocalyptic terms, the squeaky-clean society portrayed in “Demolition Man” is highly amusing, and the filmmakers have lots of fun exploiting it (Bullock loves listening to vintage TV themes!). Stallone is laid back and seems to be having a good time here; Snipes is in fine form; Bullock provides a lot of charm in one of her more prominent early roles; Bratt and Rob Schneider are likeable as her cohorts; while Nigel Hawthorne and Denis Leary add further support to a top-notch cast. Technically, the credits are outstanding across the board as well (Alex Thomson shot the film; David L. Snyder designed it; Stuart Baird handled the editing; and Elliot Goldenthal composed the score).

Warner’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer of “Demolition Man” is superb, the DTS MA soundtrack vibrant, and extras – again brought over from the old DVD release – include the trailer and a commentary with Brambilla and Silver that frustratingly refers to deleted scenes (including several involving Spartan’s daughter) that we’ve yet to see.

Sly followed “Demolition Man” with THE SPECIALIST (***, 110 mins., 1994, R), an old-fashioned “star vehicle” with Sly starring as an ex-CIA agent turned explosives expert hired by Sharon Stone, a femme fatale ought for revenge who wants Stallone’s Ray Quick to rub out the mobsters who killed her parents.

From the moment you hear John Barry’s outstanding score – a mix of Bond and “Body Heat” that’s one of the late composer’s finest scores of the decade – you know what you’re in for: an efficient piece of sleek, old-school studio filmmaking we seldom see anymore. “The Specialist” is not a great movie, but Alexandra Seros’ script relies heavily on the charisma of Stallone and Stone to carry it through, and they’re matched (if not surpassed) by one of James Woods’ more playful, over-the-top performances as one of Stallone’s former fellow agents now working for the mob boss (Rod Steiger) Stone is targeting.

Barry’s score is just marvelous – especially melodic and seductive during the film’s love scenes – and the movie’s Miami locations, well captured by director Luis Llosa and DP Jeffrey L. Kimball, add further enjoyment to a generally underrated piece of escapist fluff that performed only moderately well at the box-office during the fall of 1994 (like “Cobra,” however, the film did better overseas).

Warner’s Blu-Ray includes a clean, sharp AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio and no extras outside of the original trailer.

Stallone collaborated again with Joel Silver for Richard Donner’s 1995 box-office misfire ASSASSINS (**, 133 mins., R), an unsatisfying tale of a veteran assassin (Sly) who wants out and a young sharpshooter (a terribly over-the-top Antonio Banderas) who wants nothing less than to eliminate his existence. Julianne Moore is the latest target between them in a troubled film based on a screenplay by Andy and Larry (or, sorry, Lana) Wachowski that was rewritten by Brian Helgeland and reportedly streamlined into a more standard-issue thriller at the behest of director Donner.

Unsurprisingly, the movie didn’t play particularly well in early screenings, with Donner dropping Michael Kamen’s original score in favor of a bland, almost nondescript soundtrack from Mark Mancina. Despite the attempts at crafting a more audience-friendly thriller, “Assassins” failed to satisfy either movie-goers or critics, petering out at $30 million and ranking as one of Donner’s less satisfying features all told, with even Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography coming off as flat and uninspired.

Warner’s Blu-Ray includes another excellent AVC encoded 1080p tranfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio and a trailer that credits Mancina with the score (all the ads I recall seeing had Kamen’s name attached).

Also New On Blu-Ray

PRIEST Blu-Ray (**, 87 mins., 2011, Unrated; Sony): Fairly well-made but utterly ridiculous, forgettable hodgepodge of dozens of other, better genre films finds Paul Bettany as a priest in an alternate world where humans and vampires have sparred throughout the centuries. The undead menace was thought to have been extinguished, but it rears itself when ex-priest Karl Urban abducts Bettany’s niece, sending him out against the wishes of the church (led by a slumming Christopher Plummer) to save her.

Based on a Korean graphic novel, “Priest” is a wacky mesh of “Blade Runner,” “Mad Max,” horror movies and old westerns, all of it well-shot by veteran DP Don Burgess and scored with panache by Christopher Young (there’s a terrific use of pipe organ when the movie’s title appears on-screen). For a few minutes I thought the film would provide guilty-pleasure entertainment, but the movie quickly turns into an assault on the senses with mind-numbing action scenes and FX that offers little you haven’t seen before. The cast struggles to maintain a straight face as writer Cory Goodman and director Scott Stewart play it deadly serious, the end result being one more forgettable box-office underachiever from Screen Gems (though at least you don’t have to pay to see it in 3-D on Blu-Ray).

Sony’s BD of the “unrated” “Priest” includes a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, and various extras including deleted/extended scenes, commentary and numerous featurettes.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: Limited Edition Blu-Ray (****, 118 mins., 1998, R; Universal): Personal preference will dictate how much enjoyment you get out of the Coen Brothers' 1998 romp, but for this critic, "The Big Lebowski" ranks as one of the funniest movies of all-time.

A brilliant mix of social satire, detective thrillers, and general observations on the human condition, "Lebowski" sends stoner bowler Jeff Bridges into a noir-ish mystery involving a millionaire daughter's missing toe and – more importantly – Bridges' stolen rug. The odyssey that follows is a hysterical, endlessly quotable adventure with Bridges joined by bowling cohorts John Goodman (never better than here) and Steve Buscemi as he attempts to uncover the truth and re-cover his beloved (and soiled) possession.

Having shown "The Big Lebowski" to a variety of viewers over the years, the reactions to this Coen effort have run from manic laughter to general disappointment. Yet I still haven't laughed so hard and consistently at a film since "Lebowski" was released in 1998 – some of the individual scenes are nothing short of uproarious, and it holds up just as well on repeat viewing.

Polygram originally released "Lebowski" on DVD in the fledgling days of the format, while Universal issued a Special Edition DVD in 2005 along with an HD-DVD package a couple of years later. This new Blu-Ray limited-edition set includes Digibook packaging with full color photos, while the disc itself presents the same, satisfying VC-1 encoded transfer as the late HD-DVD edition (DTS MA audio is also on tap here for the first time).

Special features are a mix of the old and the new; since the Coens aren't renowned for their affiliation with Special Edition packages, it shouldn't come as much of a shock that the BD isn't packed with new material, though what’s here is nice enough. A couple of retrospective featurettes are on-hand with cast members recalling their work on the film; there’s also a look at a “Lebowski Fest”, a profile of the movie’s dream sequences; U-Control scene companion, music and trackable dialogue quotation features; the vintage Making Of featurette; a photo gallery of Jeff Bridges' behind-the-scenes pictures; and a tongue-in-cheek "restoration introduction" by "non-uptight film preservationist Mortimer Young."

Also new this month from Universal is PAUL (**, 104/110 mins., 2011, R/Unrated), a disappointing comedy about a foul-mouthed E.T. (voiced by Seth Rogen) who runs into Brit sci-fi geeks Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also scripted) after leaving Comic-Con and needs their help to get home, all the while avoiding FBI agents Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio.

Greg Mottola, one of Judd Apatow’s protoges, directed this intermittently funny comedy which generated marginal returns at the box-office last spring. Pegg and Frost’s script manages a few modest laughs for in-the-know genre fans, though the end result is labored and tends to blow its various comedic opportunities while leaning on a surprisingly cliched assortment of stereotypes (including redneck Christians the guys meet along the way).

Universal’s Blu-Ray includes both the 104-minute R-rated theatrical cut of “Paul” along with an unrated version running six minutes longer. Among the extras are a standard-issue blooper reel, several featurettes and commentary, along with a standard DVD and digital copy for portable media players.

THE BEAVER Blu-Ray (**½, 91 mins., 2011, PG-13; Magnolia): Successful business and family man Mel Gibson suffers from depression but finds an outlet with a beaver hand puppet that he proceeds to use as a means of communication, both in his professional and personal life, where he struggles to re-connect with wife Jodie Foster and his two sons including high schooler Anton Yelchin.

Foster directed this certainly unusual and offbeat film that’s, if nothing else, acted with conviction by Gibson, who channels a great deal of pain and emotion throughout the film. However, despite some strong moments, “The Beaver” is simply too uneven to really work, detouring off its central story line with Yelchin’s character’s dull relationship with class valedictorian Jennifer Lawrence occupying too much screen time (especially for a film that runs a scant 91 minutes).

“The Beaver” is worth a look for interested viewers, particularly those wanting to see Gibson in a change of pace performance, but it’s ultimately too outlandish and erratic. Summit’s Blu-Ray, out this week, includes a satisfying 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack, and extras including deleted scenes, Foster’s commentary, and a Making Of featurette.

Of a trio of late-August Magnolia releases, TROLL HUNTER (**
½, 103 mins., 2010, PG-13) will be the most interesting for genre fans as it follows a group of college students making a documentary about poachers, who ultimately uncover that large trolls are still living in the forests of Norway!

This Norwegian production, shot in pseudo-documentary form, is definitely overlong but has some exciting moments once the trolls appear, along with nice footage of its locales. Andre Ovredal’s film, an art-house hit around the globe, is already slated for an American remake, one that you’d imagine will be overwritten with annoying young leads and packed with more FX. Part of the appeal with “Troll Hunter” is its low-key tone, which in spite of its excessive length, makes for an intriguing foreign indie production, sort of a hybrid of “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project,” with an overall lighter touch than its American counterparts.

Magnolia’s Blu-Ray offers a fine 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio in either Norwegian or dubbed English, plus deleted scenes, bloopers, featurettes on the filming and the special effects, and other goodies.

David Hyde Pierce stars in THE PERFECT HOST (93 mins., 2010, R) as the master of L.A. dinner parties who welcomes con Clayne Crawford when he shows up at his door, trying to escape from the law but running into a situation he’s about to regret. Nick Tomnay’s indie film offers a twisty type of plot that gets by due to Hyde Peirce’s terrific performance. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray includes two featurettes, the trailer, a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio.

Finally there’s BKO: BANGKOK KNOCKOUT (106 mins., 2011, R), an action brawler from legendary Thai cinema director Panna Rittikrai. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray offers a behind-the-scenes featurette, Making Of, and the trailer, plus a DTS MA soundtrack in either Thai or dubbed English, and a 1080p transfer.

Criterion Corner

Criterion Collection’s latest offerings are highlighted by Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (84 mins., 1956), an ahead-of-its-time 1956 noir thriller written by Kubrick and Jim Thompson. Their crackling dialogue fuels this tale of a robbery gone awry with uniformly superb performances (Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay Flippen, Marie Windsor, Ted DeCorsia, Timothy Carey and Elisha Cook among them), crisp black-and-white cinematography by Lucien Ballard, a fine Gerald Fried score, and Kubrick’s eye for detail making for a bona-fide 1950's classic.

Criterion’s much-anticipated Blu-Ray package includes a new digital restoration of the film, licensed from MGM and Fox, presented in 1.66 AVC encoded 1080p widescreen; a recent interview with producer James B. Harris; a conversation with poet/author Robert Polito on Thompson; a video appreciation of the film from Geoffrey O’Brien; and a new HD transfer of Kubrick’s inferior (though interesting) 1955 “Killer’s Kiss,” included as a bonus feature. Kubrick’s second film isn’t nearly as satisfying as “The Killing,” but it’s nevertheless well worth a look for the director’s fans, setting the table for a legendary career to come.

Roman Polanski’s CUL-DE-SAC, meanwhile, was a 1966 effort with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac as a couple who receive an unwanted visitor – an American gangster (Lionel Stander) on the run, who proceeds to hold the duo hostage.

Polanski’s bizarre film, shot on the island of Lindisfarne in Northern England, is an interesting tale of paranoia with a script by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gerard Brach. The restored-high def transfer, supervised by Polanski himself, in 1.66 widescreen looks great – the black-and-white frame offering bold contrasts and details – while extras here include a 2003 Making Of doc sporting interviews with the filmmaker, producer Gene Gutowski and DP Gilbert Taylor; a 1967 TV interview with the director; and trailers.

Finally there’s SECRET SUNSHINE (142 mins., 2007), Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 film about a widowed piano instructor (Jeon Do-yeon) who moves to her late husband’s hometown along with her son, hoping to find solace there but ultimately running into more tragedy. Criterion’s Blu-Ray of this emotionally charged film includes an interview with Lee; a behind-the-scenes doc; the U.S. trailer; and a new 2.35, AVC encoded transfer in 5.1 DTS MA (Korean with English subtitles, newly translated).

New From Acorn

PRIME SUSPECT and PRIME SUSPECT 2 (204 and 207 mins., 1991-92; Acorn): Helen Mirren's performance as inspector Jane Tennison brought her critical acclaim from both sides of the Atlantic for the British mini-series "Prime Suspect," which debuted here on PBS's "Mystery!" and is contained in its original, 200-minute form on Acorn Media’s new DVD editions.

A well-written and compulsively watchable production from beginning to end (though best viewed in several installments, as the show was televised), "Prime Suspect" was the English answer to the "serial killer" thrillers of the early '90s, and it's no surprise that the dialogue and character relationships are certainly superior to anything we've seen in its American cinema counterparts. The story unfolds at a deliberate yet thoroughly involving pace, layering the various elements of the drama--from the murder itself to Mirren's dogged determination to head the investigation in a male-dominated police hierarchy--on top of each other splendidly. A follow-up effort, "Prime Suspect 2," immediately followed, as have a number of additional limited series thereafter. The sequel is just as entertaining and well-written as its predecessor.

Acorn’s DVDs are satisfying given that the transfers look equivalent to how the programs aired on television, and at least are superior to Anchor Bay’s DVDs from over a decade ago. The cinematography is rather murky and doesn't appear as if it was shot on a high quality film stock, so it has that grainy, low-light sort of look that many UK programs do when aired on American television – which, speaking of the latter, gets its own “Prime Suspect” when NBC unveils their version of the material with Maria Bello next month.

Also new from Acorn this month is Series 5 of PIE IN THE SKY (392 mins., 1997), which brings back character actor Richard Griffiths took as veteran detective – and restaurant owner – Henry Crabbe in this breezy mid ‘90s BBC series co-starring Malcolm Sinclair and Maggie Steed, with guest stars including Kelly Reilly and Nicola Walker among others. “Pie” ran for some five reasons before handing in its badge, and concluded its run with this fifth and final go-round. Acorn’s DVD sports fine full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks with the eight episodes spread out over three discs.

Lastly Acorn has rolled out a complete series edition of the James Nesbitt police drama MURPHY’S LAW (24 hours, 2003-07), with Nesbitt starring as tough, no-nonsense Irish cop Tommy Murphy in this BBC series which ran for some five series and follows Murphy as he heads into London’s underworld to work with the Metropolitan Police, haunted by the death of his daughter and battling alcoholism along the way.

Acorn’s nine disc set includes all five series of “Murphy’s Law” in excellent 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. The box-set also includes a biography of the star (fans should note that the first three series were previously released by Acorn; series 3 and 4 make their debuts on August 30th along with this complete series set, which retails for $99).

BBC New Releases

WONDERS OF THE UNIVERSE Blu-Ray (232 mins., 2011; BBC): Professor Brian Cox’s follow-up to his earlier “Wonders of the Solar System” again offers its host touring the world, attempting to understand the creation of our universe, the galaxies around us and our place in it all. Four episodes comprise this 2011 BBC series – “Destiny,” “Stardust,” “Falling” and “Messengers” – all included here in good-looking 1080i transfers with stereo soundtracks. Viewers should note that some music edits have been made from its original broadcast.

DOCTOR WHO - DAY OF THE DALEKS DVD (96 mins., 1972; BBC): One of the more memorable “Dr. Who” story arcs is the latest to receive the BBC Special Edition DVD treatment of the classic series. The two-disc set of the Jon Pertwee “Daleks” includes commentary from cast and crew members; a 30-minute Making Of; photo gallery; PDF materials; the brand-new “Special Edition” edit with brand-new effects, Dalek voices and “specially shot” sequences (exclusive to this release); a Making Of the new version; and various other featurettes that will certainly be of interest for Dr. Who fans.

DIANA RIGG AT THE BBC DVD (13 hours; BBC): Superb retrospective of vintage dramas starring Diana Rigg comprise this five-disc anthology from the BBC. Included are the comedy “Three Piece Suite,” the dramatic “Little Eyolf,” “Mrs. Bradley Mysteries,” the long-unavailable “Genghis Cohn” and “Unexplained Laughter.” A new interview with Rigg offers comments on each of the programs contained within – highly recommended for BBC and/or Rigg devotees.

New From Mill Creek

Mill Creek has a number of new Blu-Rays culled from the vaults of Disney’s Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures libraries out this week. After having been Walmart exclusives for a couple of months, these titles are now available at Amazon and other retailers nationwide, all between $5-$10 each.

BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND Blu-Ray (***, 95 mins., 1985, PG) was one of the earliest Touchstone releases, and it’s certainly an odd mix of a “cute,” E.T.-like fantasy (with scientists uncovering living Brontosauruses in the African jungle) with more adult overtones and violence than you’d ordinarily expect in this type of film.
B.W.L. Norton, whose main directorial credits up to that point were the memorable Cornel Wilde TV-movie “Gargoyles” and the lamentable “More American Graffiti,” stepped into direct “Baby” after Roger Spottiswoode left the project in pre-production (he’s still credited as an executive producer). Working from a Clifford and Ellen Green screenplay, “Baby” runs the gamut from being a wholesome Disney-esque genre film to an action-packed jungle tale with married couple William Katt and Sean Young trying to protect “Baby” from evil scientist Patrick McGoohan.

“Baby”’s animatronic effects aren’t anything to write home about and the film is highly predictable, but what makes it appealing are the widescreen cinematography of John Alcott and Jerry Goldsmith’s marvelous score. Goldsmith’s gorgeous, lyrical theme takes you past the only so-so creature effects and sells the material in a way the story can’t do, while Katt and Young work well together as the leads. In spite of its flaws, it’s hard not to be emotionally involved by the time the credits roll with Goldsmith’s music welling with emotion.

“Baby” isn’t high art but as far as the myriad of “E.T.” clones we endured in the ‘80s goes, it’s one of the better ones, and its presentation is substantially enhanced by Mill Creek’s Blu-Ray. Making its widescreen debut in the U.S. for the first time on home video, the 2.35 1080p transfer is surprisingly robust, preserving Alcott’s anamorphic lensing. The original Dolby Stereo mix has been encoded as a 4.0 DTS MA track and is likewise satisfying, coming to life occasionally with effects and a nice stage for Goldsmith’s score.

THE WAR AT HOME Blu-Ray (**, 119 mins., 1997, R; Mill Creek): Most likely because he agreed to appear in the third “Mighty Ducks” movie, Emilio Estevez got to step into the director's chair for this competent but unremarkable drama, scripted by James Duff from his stage play "Homefront." Of course, Estevez made things easier by directing his dad, Martin Sheen, and his own favorite actor – himself – in this set-bound character piece about a promising young high-schooler whose life is forever shattered by Vietnam, and the inevitable conflicts that arise between he and his family when he comes home from the war. The dramatic situations are right out of every other Vietnam movie you've seen before, and the lack of originality hampers Estevez's sincere attempt at crafting a thoughtful ensemble piece. However, the cast tries hard – even though Kimberly Williams looks a little old as Estevez's kid sister, Kathy Bates is unsurprisingly superb as the mother, crafting a well-drawn personage out of Duff's cliched screenplay. On the male side, Sheen and Estevez are adequate, though both fall victim to overacting late in the movie – a little restraint, along the lines of Basil Poledouris's eloquent score, would have helped immeasurably.  Mill Creek’s wide 1080p (2.35) transfer is quite good and the 2.0 DTS MA soundtrack perfectly acceptable given the limited parameters of its mixing.

Also out from Mill Creek is MIAMI RHAPSODY (**½, 105 mins., 1995, PG-13), a watchable box-office flop that provides a breezy romantic-comedy ensemble piece for stars Antonio Banderas, Sarah Jessica Parker, Carla Gugino and Kevin Pollak among others. The 1080p transfer and 2.0 DTS MA soundtrack are both just fine.

Family Finds

MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 94 mins., 1984, G; Sony)
MUPPETS FROM SPACE Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 88 mins., 1999, G; Sony)

Like a lot of thirtysomethings, I grew up on the Muppets via Sesame Street, their own syndicated show, and, of course, the big-screen Muppet movies. For a long time, though, I never could get into the theatrical films -- somehow seeing Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo outside in the real world, away from their own confines, was something that I simply didn't buy at first glance.

Jim Henson's first three theatrical films starring his creations -- 1979's “The Muppet Movie,” 1981's “Great Muppet Caper”, and 1984's “The Muppets Take Manhattan” – are a mix of standard cinematic plots punched up with satirical Muppet humor, along with song soundtracks that yielded a few hits in the process. The “Great Muppet Caper” is the best of the three (I prefer it for its enjoyable heist plot and Joe Raposo's terrific songs), but Sony only has distribution access to “Manhattan” and the Muppets’ last theatrical outing – 1999's “Muppets From Space” – both of which, while certainly entertaining and ideal fare for kids, illustrate the kinds of problems that Henson, Frank Oz, and company had when trying to adapt the Muppets to the silver screen.

One of those problems is the use of guest star cameos, which sometimes slowed the movies down -- after all, do kids really care about Elliott Gould, James Coburn, and Telly Savalas popping up as extras, as they did in the original “Muppet Movie”?

Though “Caper” eschewed the multiple-cameo approach, this was again something of a problem with THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, the third Muppet movie, directed by Frank Oz and released by Tri-Star back in the summer of 1984. Despite some fun scenes and lines, this entry is the weakest of the three, Henson-era original films, with a recycled plot switching the first movie's Hollywood setting to Broadway, adding mediocre songs by Jeff Moss, and throwing in some weak star cameos to boot (James Coco, Dabney Coleman, and Linda Lavin aren't exactly Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Orson Welles!). Still, kids will enjoy it, and Sony’s Blu-Ray AVC encoded 1080p transfer looks just fine: as with all the Muppet movies, the picture was shot in a “hard matted” 1.85, meaning full-screen TV exhibitions were cropped on both the left and right hand edges. The composition here looks just perfect, and Sony’s mastering accentuates crisp detail and natural film grain without obvious use of DNR. An interesting 14-minute interview with Henson from the movie’s press junket is the main extra here, along with “Muppetisms.”

After Jim Henson’s untimely passing, the Henson group produced the marvelous 1992 “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and its less-satisfying 1996 follow-up “The Muppet Treasure Island.”

Looking to mix things up, MUPPETS FROM SPACE dropped the songs and tried to play up the characters’ natural humor with a story that finds Gonzo trying to find his roots – and uncovering that he’s part of an extraterrestrial race in the process. The not-quite A-list supporting cast includes a number of dated cameos (“Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, various “Dawson’s Creek” cast members) but it’s really the Jerry Juhl-Joseph Mazzarino-Ken Kaufman script that’s the big problem – along with a soundtrack that decided to play up commercial pop tunes in place of the sorts of memorable songs Joe Raposo and Paul Williams had composed for earlier films.

A box-office misfire, “Muppets From Space” would be the last Muppet theatrical feature for many years – a number of highly uneven TV projects followed until Disney opted to produce this holiday season’s “The Muppets,” which will hopefully restore Henson’s loveable creations to their proper place in pop culture. Sony’s “Muppets From Space” Blu-Ray is nicely presented with another stellar 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extras include outtakes and a music video of the Dust Brothers’ “Shining Star.”

BAMBI II Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 73 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Sincerely-produced, beautifully-designed sequel to one of Disney's all-time classics ranks as the finest direct-to-video project in the studio's history.

That's not to say that "Bambi II" is a masterpiece like its predecessor -- the story is too straightforward and "small" in scope to garner a great emotional response -- but it's certainly a surprising, robustly animated affair with gorgeous colors. Credit has to be given here to director Brian Pimental and the Disney creative staff for producing a respectful, first-class small-screen production that ought to please children and adults alike. The rather slim story follows Bambi's coming of age as he's raised in the forest by "The Great Prince" (voiced by Patrick Stewart) after the death of his mother, with appearances by all of the original characters (from Thumper and Flower to Owl) along the way.

"Bambi II" has a disadvantage right off the bat in that the original is one of the true treasures in the Disney canon, offering a timeless story that was quite economically told. Obviously, this being a "modern" piece, "Bambi II" has to offer a more contemporary musical accompaniment, in addition to developing themes (like becoming an adult) that are more explicitly conveyed than the thematic elements of its predecessor.

That all being said, the music -- from a score by Bruce Broughton (incorporating underscore from the original) to several pleasant songs written by Richard Marx among others -- works wonderfully well, the story is basic but isn't pretentious at all, and the animation is glorious. The design of the natural environments and characters is right in-line with the original movie, and the depth of the animation is likely unsurpassed for a made-for-video project.

Disney's Blu-Ray offers a beautiful AVC encoded transfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio. Extras are limited to a standard Making Of featurette, a trivia track, and several interactive games for the kids, plus a deleted song exclusive to this release and a DVD copy as well.

Also new this month from Disney is PHINEAS AND FERB: THE MOVIE (77 mins., 2011) in a two-disc “Fan Pack” offering eight deleted scenes, a bonus episode from the Disney cartoon series, extras, a digital copy including eight music tracks, and a build-your-own “Platypuit Kit” packaged inside the DVD bundle.

Finally, Disney’s live-action PROM (**½, 104 mins., 2011, PG) arrives on Blu-Ray next week in a combo pack also sporting a standard DVD edition. This box-office flop from last spring is actually a fairly appealing high school comedy more in line with the John Hughes films of the ‘80s as opposed to “High School Musical” and its brethren, which “Prom”’s advertising unwisely resembled. Katie Welch’s script follows a group of graduating seniors and their last big hurrah, and while it’s nothing extraordinary, the movie is likeable enough and teen audiences are likely to enjoy it. Disney’s Blu-Ray looks and sounds nice (1080p AVC encode, 5.1 DTS MA audio) and numerous extras include bloopers, deleted scenes, a featurette, music videos, and a new-short “Last Chance Lloyd.”

MARLEY AND ME: THE PUPPY YEARS Blu-Ray (86 mins., 2011, PG; Fox): Made-for-video prequel to the dog-tearjerker adaptation of John Grogan’s book (which, admittedly, wasn’t that great of a film) is aimed strictly at the kiddies as we see Marley grow up with a group of other precocious canines – all of whom talk this time out. It’s silly shenanigans best left for family audiences, with Fox’s Blu-Ray including a number of featurettes, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio. The disc is a Walmart exclusive for the time being.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

GOOD WILL HUNTING Blu-Ray (***½, 126 mins., 1997, R; Lionsgate): Gus Vant Sant's excellent 1997 film is a testament to superb ensemble acting and a solid script.

Matt Damon excels as the troubled genius who works as a janitor at MIT, counseled by therapist Robin Williams and pal Ben Affleck while dating Harvard grad student Minnie Driver. Damon and Affleck co-wrote the script for this character piece, which is perfectly content to gradually develop its characters without adhering to a standard Hollywood plot formula. Sure, you could say one of the monologues in the film was a bit much, or that the plot seems a bit disjointed at the start, but what “Good Will Hunting” does so effectively is capture a rich tapestry of characters at a certain time and place in life, and bring them to some kind of resolution at the finish without making it feel like the ending is half-baked and tacked on. Damon, Affleck, Williams, Driver, and Stellan Skaarsgard comprise the film's talented cast; Van Sant, an often eclectic director whose own talent usually enhances his projects, here is happy to let the story do its work on its own, and the results speak for themselves. Additional kudos go out to Danny Elfman's fine score.

“Good Will Hunting” makes its long-overdue domestic Blu-Ray debut this month in a good-looking AVC encoded transfer from Lionsgate with DTS MA audio and all the extras from Miramax’s old Special Edition DVD (commentary, deleted scenes, etc.).

Also newly released from Lionsgate is a Blu-Ray of ROUNDERS (**½, 1998, 121 mins., R), John Dahl's interesting though not entirely satisfying 1998 character study, with Matt Damon as a card whiz trying to bail out buddy Edward Norton from loan shark John Malkovich. Dahl's movies are always interesting (I'm still waiting on a re-issue of "Unforgettable" with the Nat King Cole song re-instated), and "Rounders" is no exception: the performances of Damon, Norton, Malkovich, John Turturro, Famke Jenssen, and Martin Landau are excellent, as is the picture's ample atmosphere. The script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, meanwhile, is another issue, with the movie rambling at times when it ought to be fully compelling. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is strong, as is the DTS MA audio and the various extras included, carried over from two prior DVD releases.

Finally, Lionsgate also has new Blu-Rays available of SWINGERS (***) and HOSTAGE (**½), two more Miramax titles that have been issued with AVC encoded 1080p transfers and 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks. Both films look good, offer extras from their earlier DVD incarnations, and come as recommended upgrades for BD owners.

LITTLE BIG SOLDIER Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack (92 mins., 2010, PG-13; Well Go): Jackie Chan essays a soldier who abducts a general (Wang Leehom) during China’s war period, hoping to collect a reward, only to find himself having to work with Leehom in order to stay alive in this fitfully amusing Chan concoction. Chan himself wrote, produced and directed the action sequences in “Little Big Soldier,” which Well Go has released on Blu-Ray in a combo package sporting a good-looking 1080p Blu-Ray transfer with DTS MA audio and extras including trailers, a Making Of, music video, and both English and Cantonese dialogue tracks (with English subs).

IN A BETTER WORLD Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 118 mins., 2010, R; Sony): This year’s winner for Best Foreign Film, Sony brings director Susanne Bier’s latest to Blu-Ray this month in a BD/DVD combo pack. “In a Better World” profiles a Danish doctor who splits his time between his quaint small town and an African refugee camp; after his son is bullied at school and defended by a teen newly arrived from London, the two decide to exact revenge, putting in motion a number of potentially tragic occurrences in an original script by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. Well acted and directed, if leisurely paced, “In a Better World” looks terrific in Sony’s BD 1080p offering, with extras including deleted scenes, commentary and an interview with the director.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN Blu-Ray (****, 128 mins., 1960; MGM/Fox): Elmer Bernstein's appropriately magnificent score remains a highlight of John Sturges' classic film, one that turned Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" into an American western classic spawning three sequels, a belated CBS television series, and countless imitators.

The original, newly released on Blu-Ray from MGM and Fox as a single Blu-Ray platter (it was previously available in a series anthology Blu-Ray box a year ago), stars Yul Brynner as a gunslinger who recruits a band of six others (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn among them) to help defend a small Mexican town against villain Eli Wallach and his gang of mercenaries. A bona-fide film classic, MGM's Blu-Ray edition basically offers an HD reprise of the label’s 2006 Special Edition DVD, which was issued during that brief window when Sony was distributing the studio’s home video product. The AVC encoded transfer looks great, offering crisp detail and strong colors, while the occasionally brittle DTS Master Audio sound offers a re-channeled mix of the film’s original mono soundtrack (which is also on-hand).  Extras include the initial DVD’s commentary track featuring Eli Wallach, James Coburn, and producer Walter Mirisch, plus featurettes on Elmer Bernstein’s score (courtesy of comments from sage Jon Burlingame), a 45-minute retrospective documentary, trailers, and “Lost Images” from the movie. Curiously, neither Christopher Frayling’s commentary from the 2006 DVD nor an interview with the film historian have been retained from that release, though everything else has.

Also now available as a standalone Blu-Ray title is RETURN OF THE SEVEN (the movie's actual on-screen title, even though the film is commonly known as RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), the mediocre, belated 1966 sequel with Brynner back as Chris, here defending yet another small town with a gaggle of new pals. Larry Cohen (!) scripted this follow-up, with western vet Burt Kennedy handling the action, shot on-location in Spain. Elmer's music once again graces the film (**½, 95 mins., 1966), here featured in an understandably more ragged looking transfer (particularly compared to the full restoration its predecessor received) that’s nevertheless satisfying in its AVC encode. The DTS Master Audio sound offers sparse stereo separation and seems to be little more than a tiny embellishment on the movie’s original mono mix. The trailer is also on tap.

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE Special Edition DVD (Shout! Factory): If there’s one episode of MST3K that every fan of the program has seen, it’s likely “Manos, the Hands of Fate,” the unbelievably amateurish ‘60s cult-horror/unintended comedy which Joel and the boys memorably grilled. This new two-disc release from Shout! includes the classic MST3K episode plus extras including a “Group Therapy” featurette in which Joel, Trace, Frank and Mary Jo “relive the horror” of the movie; the entire “Manos” in its unexpurgated non-glory; a documentary on the making of the film and numerous other extras. Recommended! (Available Sept. 13th)

Also new from Shout! in their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” line is a two-disc, four-movie SWORD AND SORCERY COLLECTION anthology offering the quite entertaining ‘80s fantasies DEATHSTALKER and DEATHSTALKER II, each including brand-new 16:9 transfers with all-new commentaries and trailers (“Deathstalker II” is presented in its “Director-Approved” cut); plus BARBARIAN QUEEN with Lana Clarkson and David Carradine in THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS. All new 16:9 transfers enhance this satisfying new addition to the Corman line from Shout!


GOSSIP GIRL Season 4 DVD (927 mins., 2010-11; Warner): Cecily von Ziegesar’s popular series of books continues to be a primetime mainstay on the struggling CW Network. Season 4 of the program offers 22 more episodes on DVD of Manhattan glitz, glamour and gossip, with a mysterious girl named Juliet appearing with a connection to Serena, Chuck attempting to ward off a takeover attempt for his father’s company, Dan and Vanessa’s relationship falling apart, and Blair and Serena’s summer in Paris comprising a few of the story lines. Episodes include Belles de Jour; Double Identity; The Undergraduates; Touch of Eva; Goodbye Columbia, Easy J; War of the Roses; Juliet Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Witches of Bushwick; Gaslit; The Townie; The Kids Are Not Alright; Damien Darko; Panic Rommate; It-Girl Happened One Night; While You Weren’t Sleeping; Empire of the Son; The Kids Stay in the Picture; Petty in Pink; The Princesses and the Frog; Shattered Bass; and the Wrong Goodbye. 16:9 transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, and a number of extras (featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel) are on-tap in Warner’s box-set.

DETROIT 1-8-7 Season 1 DVD (792 mins., 2010-11; Lionsgate)
RUNNING WILDE Season 1 DVD (286 mins., 2010-11; Lionsgate)
NO ORDINARY FAMILY Season 1 DVD (860 mins., 2010-11; Lionsgate):
Three casualties among the many of the 2010-11 Fall TV season arrive on DVD from Lionsgate in Season 1 (really “Complete Series”) packages.

Michael Imperioli starred in ABC’s fairly well-received, though little-watched, crime drama “Detroit 1-8-7" about a homicide unit in one of the country’s toughest cities. Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz, meanwhile, starred as the parental units in ABC's genial "No Ordinary Family," sort of a "suburban Fantastic Four with Kids" as Chiklis and Benz, along with their teenage children, end up with super-powers. Lastly, Will Arnett failed to generate any viewers in Fox’s short-lived comedy “Running Wilde,” starring the comedian as a millionaire trying to woo his liberal childhood sweetheart (Keri Russell). All three series hit DVD with 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 (2.0 on "Running Wilde") soundtracks and nothing in the way of extras.

NEW FROM E ONE: Two more entries in ELVIRA’S MOVIE MACABRE series launch this month. Roger Corman’s THE TERROR is paired with the immortal Richard Kiel caveman pic EEGAH! in the superior of the two releases, while the other disc includes THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE along with the hilariously inept THE MANSTER. Both discs include behind-the-scenes content, a music video and previews...Adrien Brody wakes up from a car accident in WRECKED (98 mins., 2010, R), a dense thriller that Brody gives an effective, appropriately intense performance in. IFC brings Michael Greenspan’s indie thriller to Blu-Ray in a 1080p transfer with featurettes, the trailer, and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio...PHANTOM PAIN (98 mins., 2009, Not Rated) offers an inspiring true account of a bicyclist who loses a leg in an accident but finds his life turning around after he meets a young woman. Til Schweiger stars in this German import that IFC brings to DVD in a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 audio (in German with English subs).

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: Vintage ‘90s Saturday morning fare is on-tap in the 9th season of the original TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (176 mins.), which includes eight episodes (“The Unknown Ninja,” “Dregg of the Earth,” “Wrath of Medusa,” “New Mutation,” “The Showdown,” “Split-Second,” “Carter the Enforcer” and “Doomquest”) in full-screen DVD transfers and 2.0 soundtracks.

NEW AND UPCOMING FROM NEWVIDEO: Molly Parker plays a mother trying to save her nine-year-old daughter who’s been kidnapped in GONE, a 2011 Lifetime TV-movie co-starring Lochlyn Munroe. NewVideo’s DVD includes the 87-minute cable-film in a no-frills DVD package with stereo 2.0 audio....Season One of STORAGE WARS (aprx. 7 hours), the popular A&E reality series, reaches DVD late this month, profiling the storage auction/consignment experts who filter through troves of trash or treasure...ONLY IN AMERICA WITH LARRY THE CABLE GUY, VOL. 1 (aprx. 6 hours), meanwhile, offers Larry the Cable Guy zinging through the U.S. in 10 amusing episodes of the History Channel series.

NEXT TIME: The Labor Day rundown! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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